The “no country for old men” in William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” is probably Yeats’s native Ireland, famous for its salmon and its mackerel. But it might be anywhere (which is why Cormac McCarthy swiped the line for the title of a story that couldn’t have less to do with Ireland, or Byzantium either, for that matter). “No country for old men” is anywhere physical life goes on to its fullest, while those who lead less-active senior lifestyles are left in the dust.
Age was a factor for Yeats when he wrote the poem in 1928. But he was only 63 that year; he had a young wife and two young children. And though you’re proverbially as old as you feel, he wasn’t quite a “tattered coat upon a stick” just yet. He would live for another ten years – much of it spent writing poetry about how old he was feeling.
But it isn’t just old age that can get you feeling out of place in a country where the young are in one another’s arms. “Sensual music” is a beat not everyone can dance to. “Sailing” is a poem for any of us who have felt out of place, in a world where people are out enjoying the physical to an extent we can’t. And when we can’t, we often turn to art for a pleasure unavailable in the physical world.
“Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” Sitting down with your guitar is OK, but listening to Jimi Hendrix is better. “Byzantium” in the poem is not Jimi Hendrix, who came on the scene a couple of years after Yeats had left it. Nor is it necessarily the literal capital of the great Greek empire that flourished after the fall of Rome. (By 1928, there had been no Greek empire in Byzantium for almost 500 years, and nobody had used the name “Byzantium” in over 1,500. It was Istanbul, not Constantinople, now.)
Byzantium is any culture that provides a rich medium for the flowering of an art form. It was a dead culture by the time Yeats wrote, but lived on in its art and in reproductions and accounts of that art. Just as Jimi Hendrix, of course, is now as dead as Yeats; he lives on only in recordings. The paradox of art is that it stays dead as a doornail, forever; but it is one of the most inspiring things in life. Such is the fate of the poet who flees the physical to become “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.” You can’t have it both ways. And one of the things that I love about this poem is that even while the speaker says he wants to become a nonliving, artificial thing, the poem looks back over its shoulder, longingly, at those “mackerel-crowded seas.”